Rose Blake, London illustration

Welcome to London! Or at least, our London City Guide, the first of AIGA’s city-specific editorial packages examining what it’s like to live and work as a graphic designer in various key cities worldwide.

In each one we take a closer look at a city’s graphic design history, key agencies that formed there, the agencies working there today, the best art and design schools, student life, and the minutiae of setting up a life and studio in the city, with everything from average studio rentals to the price of a pint of milk. Together, this provides an in-depth and useful resource for anyone in the graphic design sphere considering studying, living, or setting up an agency in a particular city.

Our research draws on everything from governmental data to insights from established agencies, and discussions with students and designers about the realities of their life in a city, whether that’s how competitive it is to pitch for projects or the best designer-friendly spots to grab a drink. Where statistical data is concerned, this is accurate as of the piece’s time of writing (December 2016).

We’d like to offer particular thanks to Wolff Olins and Pentagram’s London offices, which kindly let the AIGA Eye on Design editorial team spend a day in their studios to really get to know the ins and outs of how they work and their studio culture. We’d also like to thank the numerous people who’ve offered their insights for interviews and quotations, as well as Robert Ballard, Rose Blake, Julianna Futter, Gordon Reid, and Mica Warren, for their illustrations and infographic designs.

London Facts and Figures

Population: 8.674 million

Number of design businesses (across all design disciplines): 5,927

Number of People Working in Design Full Time: 16,537

How London relates to the rest of the UK:

A 2016 government study of the creative industries (across fashion, film, architecture etc., as well as design) found that these accounted for 1 in 17 (5.8 percent) of all jobs in the UK in 2015. Almost a third (30.8 percent) of those creative industry jobs were based in London. In 2015, across the whole of the UK, around 1 in 11 jobs (9.0 percent) were in the “creative economy.” In London, the figure was 1 in 6 jobs (16.4 per cent). Within London, according to the BOP Consulting Soho Report 2013, the Westminster borough claims the  highest number of creative employment jobs in the UK (over 95,000), and the West End/Soho has over 46,000 people in creative employment. 6,336 of these jobs were in advertising agencies (up 43% from 2009).

So, Why London?

Technology Prowess

London took the top spot “as a center for business, finance and culture” out of 30 global cities including New York, Tokyo, Paris, and San Francisco in PWC’s Cities of Opportunity Survey 2015According to the survey, “London gets top ranking for software and multimedia development and design, finishes second overall for broadband quality (up 12 places on 2014), and ranks third behind only Singapore and Seoul for internet access in schools.”

Art and Design Education

London has a rich selection of renowned art schools offering graphic design courses, including the renowned Royal College of Art (though this only offers post-grad courses), Central Saint Martins, Goldsmiths, Chelsea, Ravensbourne, Kingston, and London College of Communication. According to the Guardian’s 2017 University League Tables, Goldsmiths ranked first place in the design and crafts category, with Kingston in third. Kingston came first for both its graphic design course and product design course. Scoring is based on a combination of figures relating to course satisfaction, teaching quality, student feedback, staff-student ratio, money spent on each student, and the percentage of graduates who find graduate-level jobs, or are studying further, within six months of graduation.

London Weighting Means Higher Wages

As living costs in London are higher than in the rest of the UK, wages in the city are adjusted accordingly. A Design Week salary survey examined average wages for designers in 2015, finding that the average UK salary for a designer is £33,443 (~$46,968 USD), rising to £36,791 (~$51,670 USD) in London. (These figures can be compared to salaries in the U.S. thanks to the AIGA salary survey here.)

How London Helps Designers

Job Hunting in London for Designers

In London perhaps more than any other cities in the world, there’s a number of specialist design recruitment agencies that offer considered routes into a role. These include Represent, Major Players, Tomorrow London, and Gabriele Skelton. According to Mike Radcliffe, managing director at Represent, there are around 50 dedicated design recruitment agencies in the city, a point of difference for London against cities such as New York, where he reckons design jobs are more “transient.”

This large number of recruiters is also a testament to the sheer volume of design agencies in London: the city’s density of agencies is rivalled by only New York and San Francisco, according to Radcliffe. He posits that while these U.S. cities are seeing a move towards brands creating their own in-house design agencies (such as AirBnb, based in San Fransisco, which had hired London agency DesignStudio for its rebrand), London is still working with more traditional agency/client relationships. “A lot of ‘good’ designers find work through recruitment agencies because they’re in jobs that mean they’re too busy to update their websites and portfolios, so they need an agency to help with that,” says Radcliffe. “In cities like New York it feels like people are maybe less committed to one job.”

But why? “The salaries are much higher in the U.S. A junior designer in the Bay Area could walk into somewhere like Uber and get a £70,000 starting salary, but to go into one of the very good branding agencies in London they’d get a starting salary of about £21,000. Salaries here haven’t changed much in about 10 years.”

Alongside recruitment agencies, other main ways of finding jobs are LinkedIn and through existing contacts—in London, there’s a lot of truth in the maxim that “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” At the moment, though, things are looking good for talented designers looking for work in the city. “It’s very much an ‘employee’s market’ at the moment,” says Radcliffe. “Design agencies are having to compete to employ good designers.”

London Design Festival 2017 identity by Pentagram

London Design Festival

The Mayor of London and the London Assembly support the annual London Design Festival, which takes place every September. It was set up by Sir John Sorrell and Ben Evans in 2003 and is now one of the world’s most important annual design events. The festival program is made up of over 400 events and exhibitions staged by hundreds of organizations across the design spectrum and from around the world. Last year’s event attracted an audience of more than 350,000 people from over 60 countries, while a wider audience of over two million saw the major public commissions. The festival also helps over 1,250 design companies generate new businesses, according to the government website. However, the majority of LDF is devoted to product, furniture, and interior design; there’s still a ways to go until graphic design gets the space it deserves.

Artist Workspace Research

The London Assembly has commissioned two detailed studies into how best to support London’s declining affordable artist workspaces. In recent years, many creatives have been priced out of their studios as rents increase and large sites such as warehouses have been sold off to developers. The Artists’ Workspace Study and Creating Artists’ Workspace Case Studies intend to find ways to support creative entrepreneurs and artists.

The findings in both were often rather bleak, so it’s a good thing there’s an intention to change the status quo. “While there are many excellent examples of meanwhile use throughout the city, investment in long-term and permanent space is sorely needed to sustain London’s position,” the study concludes. “The current crisis of workspace provision will require new approaches and an imaginative vision…  The creative sector’s huge contribution to London’s economy and global position is well documented. Only by incorporating artists’ workspace in strategic planning for the city, will we maintain our competitiveness and achieve the mayor’s ambition of becoming an international ‘capital of content’.”

London Cultural Strategy Group

The London Cultural Strategy Group is a high-level body from the cultural sector, appointed by the mayor of London, whose role is to advise the mayor on the promotion of London as “a world-class city of culture and in shaping the development and provision of cultural activities across the capital.”

Public Funding from the Mayor of London 

Projects that have received a mixture of public and private investment include:


Design Council Spark

Design Council Spark is a support and funding program that provides up to 15 finalists with specialist expertise and one-to-one mentoring. Once accepted into the program, applicants receive an initial sum of £15,000 to help develop designs, as well as a chance to pitch for a further share of £200,000. Beyond the program, successful applicants receive a lifelong membership to the Design Council Spark alumni network and access to the Design Council’s community.

Creative Sector Tax Relief

Creative Sector Tax Relief is a program of tax incentives throughout the UK which came into force in 2014. It encompass new incentives aimed at supporting the animation, high-end television, and video games industries, in addition to the existing relief available for film production. It aims to provide an incentive to make productions within the UK which would otherwise take place outside of it, and “support the necessary critical mass of infrastructure and skills in the UK for both today and in the longer term.”

In 2016, Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture and the digital economy, suggested the possibility of tax breaks for more creative industries—such as design—at a Creative England event celebrating collaboration and business growth.